The Boy from Hangzhou

June 11, 2015

West Lake (Shihu) Southern Song dynasty, 13th century

In the morning the old woman found the small boy, Gongdi, alone. He was playing with a sparrow he kept in a cage by the window. The bird faced south on its perch, toward the warmth of the sun, chirping, and leaping occasionally at the bamboo bars of its prison. The boy talked to the sparrow as he would talk to a playmate. He had given it a name, and translated its chirping for the old woman. The caged bird’s conversation was full of jokes and puns.

He asked the old woman if perhaps they, too, should go south, where it was warmer, and there would be more food to eat. It would be less drafty than in his empty room overlooking the forlorn lake covered in mists. Perhaps there, he wondered aloud, he would find the rest of his family, and the playmates he remembered from the courtyard.

“You must open your sparrow’s cage, and let it go home,” the old woman told the small boy. “We cannot take it with us. It would not survive.”

He was an obedient boy, and so with some tears he complied, though he was certain that if at least he or the sparrow managed to find its way south, then all would be well, and whoever first arrived would prepare things for the arrival of the other. He opened the cage door, and the bird sprung away and into the mist.

The old woman picked up the small boy and lifted him onto her shoulders. She did not walk easily. She was not accustomed to walking at all, and wobbled from side to side on tiny feet. They walked on through empty rooms, past empty, unmade beds, jumbled furniture, overturned and shattered ceramics, and pools of indigo ink on the floor, inadvertent calligraphy. They left the building and began to descend a stone staircase, the old woman crying out in pain with every few steps.

Through the blowing mist they passed under an enormous arch, its gates open to the wind. They passed shadows of shapes from which dark smoke mixed with the fog, and into and out of which dogs ran in twos and threes. This continued for some time, until at last they passed beneath another arch, and once here they stopped to gaze upon a plain where 10,000 tents and 30,000 horses stood, two of the finest of which towered motionless before them and in silence.

The old woman knew the men atop the horses. “There is no one left,” she told them, bringing the boy down from her shoulders and into her arms. “We place ourselves at the mercy of the great Khan.”

A bamboo cage was rolled forward, covered in canvass and large enough for several men. Into this the boy Emperor and his Dowager were lifted. The general on horseback gave a sign, and a hundred cavalry advanced back through the arch and towards the palace, to begin the pillage. The pair were handed a sizable strip of cured meat, and then goat’s milk, which neither of them could stomach. Still, it was the first food they had tasted in days. In this way Gongdi, the last emperor of Song, began his journey of 800 miles, to be paraded in triumph before Qubilai, the greatest of Khans.

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